France may be “red-hot favourites” to win the Six Nations according to England coach Eddie Jones, but several sides will fancy their title chances when spectators return for a 2022 edition that starts this weekend.
Several European teams enjoyed a successful November campaign, none more so than the French who thrashed New Zealand 40-25 to round off an unbeaten month.
Les Bleus have blended the traditional virtues of forward strength and inventive back play with a defence bolstered by the coaching of former Wales guru Shaun Edwards.
France last won the Six Nations in 2010 but next year’s World Cup hosts have enjoyed two second-placed finishes in the Six Nations since former scrum-half Fabien Galthie took over as coach.
A first win over the All Blacks in 15 attempts in November was masterminded by the outstanding half-back duo of world player of the year Antoine Dupont, fit following knee and Covid-19 problems, and Romain Ntamack.
“Some people want to put that (favourites) label on us,” France team manager Raphael Ibanez told AFP. “When I saw that, I thought, ‘Another hit from the Brits!’
‘Northern hemisphere in great shape’
But with England and Ireland also enjoying November wins over South Africa and the All Blacks respectively Ibanez added: “The November internationals revealed that teams from the northern hemisphere are in great shape.
“Scotland put 30 points on Australia, England beat the world champions, Ireland beat New Zealand a week before we did… All these teams are lined up and in a position to win.”
England, having finished a lowly fifth in last season’s Six Nations, are set to have their squad depth tested after suffering a series of injuries.
Captain Owen Farrell has been ruled out of the whole tournament, with wings Jonny May and Anthony Watson sidelined as well.
Meanwhile Courtney Lawes, widely tipped to replace Farrell as skipper, is one of several pack members who will miss Saturday’s opener away to Scotland as he recovers from a concussion.
Farrell’s absence will intensify the spotlight on fly-half Marcus Smith, one of England’s rising stars.
Jones, typically, tried to deflect the pressure by saying: “As you know, France are red-hot favourites. They are expected to win.”
Ireland, with veteran fly-half Jonathan Sexton still at the helm, also have grounds for optimism.
“We want to deliver a trophy every single time we enter a competition and this year is certainly no different,” said Ireland coach Andy Farrell.”
Amid all the speculation it is easy to forget that Wales, away to Ireland this weekend, are the reigning champions.
But they have been hard hit by injuries, with captain Alun Wyn Jones one of several high-profile absentees, together with fellow British and Irish Lions players George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi and Ken Owens all sidelined.
Fly-half Dan Biggar has taken over the captaincy, with Wales coach Wayne Pivac saying: “We’ve lost 680 caps (to injury) and that’s a lot of experience gone. Dan brings a wealth of experience.”
Scotland enjoyed behind closed doors wins away to England and France in the 2021 Six Nations yet still only finished fourth.
But coach Gregor Townsend has no doubt playing in front of a 67,000 capacity crowd at Murrayfield against England this weekend will benefit his side.
“Logic would say that it helped us (playing without crowds) because we won in London and Paris but we lost two games at home last year,” said Townsend.
“But Murrayfield helps us…the reception the players get when they run out onto the field, the anthems, the noise when they are playing well, you don’t get that in any other walk of life.”
Amid the generally buoyant mood, worries remain over Italy’s woeful record.
The Azzurri have not won a Six Nations match since 2015 and a youthful side face a tough start this season away to France.
Italy coach Kieran Crowley, was in defiant mood when asked about the team’s place in the tournament.
“I would welcome a promotion and relegation system,” he said. “Who is to say that anyone else would be any better than Italy in the Six Nations?”